A Unionization Effort

At MC and Across the U.S., Adjunct Professors Push for Collective Bargaining as Administration Pushes Back 

It always starts the same; disgruntled workers, compounded by economic downturns and the constant fear of illness or termination, and then someone mentions the unthinkable: a union.

That’s precisely what adjunct professors at Manhattan College said four years ago, in 2011, when a group of part-time faculty members filed with the college to open an election for adjuncts to form a union.

The New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), a union organization that represents most public colleges and universities in New York, namely SUNY and CUNY schools, supported the professors.

“Adjuncts at Manhattan College and at other institutions increasingly have been finding themselves working very hard without the benefits that they need and deserve,” said Carl Korn, a spokesperson for NYSUT. “The best way for workers to make gains is to organize and work collectively towards a common goal.”

Holly Hepp-Galvan, M.P.A., has been an adjunct professor at MC since 2003 and has been involved in the unionization efforts since 2009, a full year before President Brennan O’Donnell first addressed the issue in 2010.  Hepp-Galvan is teaching six classes this semester between MC, Hunter College, Marymount Manhattan College and Fordham University.

“I would never recommend teaching at a million different places,” she said. “It’s not that I’m not recommending teaching, teaching at the college level is one of the most incredible things.”

Hepp-Galvan was contacted by NYSUT six years ago and was initially hesitant about joining the effort.

“I’m not an idiot, I understand that a union would come in here and we would have to pay them dues, I get that,” she said. “But then when I started hearing more about it and I started researching and seeing that other universities had adjunct unions and how that worked I started saying ‘Hey this is kind of a good thing.’”

Hepp-Galvan said she, and her colleagues, never set out to create an adversarial relationship between part-time faculty and administration, as is the stigma often associated with unions.

“I want to be more in the Manhattan College community and I feel that I don’t like the dynamic that is being set up,” Hepp-Galvan said. “I think all adjuncts want to be a part of the Manhattan College community, I mean, we are here because we like the school. I think unionizing is going to be a good thing all around.  No one is going to make ridiculous demands.”

Jeff Horn, Ph.D., is a tenured professor of history at Manhattan College and former chair of the department.  As a former chair he was in charge of hiring and firing adjuncts in his department and had extensive experience with the unionization effort of adjuncts.

“In many ways there are several sets of issues. There is the issue of allowing adjuncts the rights to unionize,” he said. “There was a long effort to stop that and to get the adjuncts to vote against the union, which is something that many institutions choose to do but an election was held and votes were cast but as [O’Donnell] has indicated on the website, the administration chose to challenge that effort and they have been challenging it ever since.”

Manhattan College set out on a longstanding mission to stop the adjunct union effort, and while O’Donnell legally could not comment on what the College has done and hopes to do to help adjuncts, there has been some progress.

“Manhattan College has made some good changes since we started the unionization process,” Hepp-Galvan said.

“We have had some small raises and now we get paid every two weeks instead of once a month, so there have been some changes.”

Horn said that most professors would, realistically, have to teach seven or eight courses to make a truly livable wage in New York City.

“This is not an adversarial thing.  We want to be here, we want to be with the students,” Hepp-Galvan said.

“We just more of a say in certain things like wages and healthcare and I don’t even know if a union is the perfect way to do it but it’s the only way that’s been presented.”

The Investigation

Another thing that always starts the same is the corporate response to talks of unions.  In a letter to the Manhattan College faculty on Oct. 20, 2010, O’Donnell addressed the issue.

“I wanted to take a moment in the midst of all this good work briefly to address some questions that have arisen over the College’s stance with respect to the recent activity on our campus of a labor union,” O’Donnell’s letter reads.

“NYSUT, which is seeking to expand the number of employees it represents, has decided to insert itself into the Manhattan College community.”

In his letter, O’Donnell assured faculty members, like most employers have in the face of unionization, that NYSUT was trying to infiltrate the Manhattan College community for monetary gain.

“There is a script, and it is a well-worn script, that corporations use,” said Paul Dinter, Ph.D., an adjunct faculty member in the religious studies department. “I just don’t think the script is appropriate for a Catholic institution to practice.”

In 2011, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Manhattan College had to open the ballot for unionization. MC challenged the ruling, saying that as a Catholic institution, whose adjunct professors play a significant role in the perpetuation of a religious community, the NLRB, a government organization, had no jurisdiction over the matter.

“In the first round [the NLRB] said ‘You’re right, the test we had in place was a bad test, and we will put another test in place,’” O’Donnell said. “They applied that test to us and found that they still have jurisdiction over us but we think that test is no less intrusive, from a constitutional perspective, than the first one was.”

The first test the NLRB had in place that would determine whether the governmental institution could intervene and force the college to count the union ballots is called the Yeshiva test.

The Yeshiva test was put in place after the NLRB v. Yeshiva University case came before the Supreme Court in 1979.  The test laid out a list of requirements an institution must meet in order to be free of the NLRB’s jurisdiction.

The Yeshiva test was replaced in 2015 by what is called the Pacific Lutheran University test, which lays out new guidelines for governmental control.

“The issue is a first amendment, freedom of religious cause issue,” O’Donnell said. “This is an issue that the Supreme Court ruled in 1979 and reaffirmed in 2002, the record is clear that colleges have a right to operate and make decisions—with regards to their mission—free from entanglement of the government.”

O’Donnell said that having a union amongst adjuncts—which the college has argued are vital to MC’s mission—could be considered government interference at the college.

“The NLRB should deny jurisdiction,” he said. “That’s the issue.”

On Aug. 26, Karen Fernbach, regional director of the NLRB, ruled that adjuncts at Manhattan do not serve a religious purpose that would exempt them from the board’s ruling.  Setting in place a new test, by which the NLRB would determine the role religion plays at college institutions, and whether they have any jurisdiction to govern over them.

“I have carefully reviewed and considered the record evidence and the arguments of the parties at hearing and in their respective post-hearing brief,” Kerbach said in her decision. “I find that the College holds itself out as a religious educational environment, but the College failed to establish that it holds out the petitioned-for adjunct faculty members as performing a specific role in maintaining the College’s religious educational environment.”

While chair of the history department, Horn participated in the hearings and spoke to the role adjuncts play at the College.

“The argument [Manhattan College’s] lawyer was attempting to make is that because the adjuncts were vital to the Lasallian Catholic mission of the College, they should not be allowed the right to unionize,” he said. “I was able to say, categorically, that no adjunct was ever fired because they did not teach Catholic or Lasallian values, nor did I ever say that it was required that an adjunct teach Catholic or Lasallian values.”

Horn said that history is a discipline that offers many opportunities to discuss the Catholic mission of Manhattan College, but that he, as chair, never required an adjunct professor to do so.  He added that there is no mandatory training for adjuncts that taught them about the mission.

“We are an institution with complete academic freedom,” Horn said. “Although we are a Catholic school and we are in the Lasallian tradition, when I’m hiring an adjunct, one of the first things I say to them is ‘you have complete academic freedom in the classroom.’ And I would be tremendously surprised if every other chair did not say something similar.”

Kernbach, in the decision, said that she interviewed several other Manhattan College department chairs including Lance Evans, Ph.D., of the biology department and Moujalli Hourani, Ph.D. and former department chair of civil engineering.

“According to the Employee Handbook,” her decision reads. “There is no requirement that the College hire adjunct faculty based on their ability to integrate the College’s mission.”

“It would be my view,” Horn said. “That the argument that the adjuncts should not be allowed to unionize based on their participation in teaching that element of the mission does not hold up to reality.”

A Catholic Institution

The primary argument of the College is that as a Catholic institution, they should be exempt from being forced to allow their adjuncts to unionize.

However, Dinter, who was formerly a full-time faculty member at Manhattan College and now serves as an adjunct professor in the religious studies department, said this argument is directly contradictory to MC’s Catholic mission.

“Since it is the clear teaching of the Catholic Church, with which Manhattan associates itself, that workers have a right to organize or unionize,” he said. “So not even to allow or to spend hundred of thousands of dollars in legal fees to stop the counting of the ballots in, again, a contravention of clear advice in Matthew 5, that when someone takes you to court, you give them your code, you don’t depend on legal decisions, but Manhattan has thrown in its lot with the way things are done in society as a whole.”

Dinter referenced the fifth chapter of Matthew, a book in the New Testament that discusses how Christ’s disciples should conduct themselves in the face of the law and abide by all oaths they make.

“Going to court to stop the adjuncts from freely voting seems to me to be something of a scandal,” he said. “Claiming that [unionization] would somehow compromise the Catholic identity of the College has always puzzled me.”

O’Donnell argued the point that, in this case, a union simply was not appropriate.

“The Catholic social thought tradition does not say that all unions in all times in all places in all circumstances are to be accepted and supported and embraced, that’s just not a legitimate application of Catholic social thought,” he said. “So my response to that is that the institutional good of maintaining [MC’s] identity, free of government entanglement is a more compelling good for us at this moment than accepting the jurisdiction of the NLRB by allowing the adjuncts to unionize.”

The issue of adjunct unionizing is not unique to Manhattan College.  In fact, it has become a national issue amongst Catholic institutions, including Xavier and Duquesne Universities. However, Manhattan College has become the focal point of a new national discussion about the right of adjuncts to unionize.

“We called on Manhattan College to stop wasting tuition dollars on attorneys’ fees and start offering benefits to adjunct professors,” Korn said. “Manhattan College has consistently thrown up roadblocks to stop the unionization process and [on Aug. 26] the Labor Board ordered them open the ballot.”

Editor’s Note: The Quadrangle will continue to follow the results of the Labor Board’s decision and report the latest develoments pertinent to the Manhattan College community.